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Why Wait For November? Milwaukie Light Rail Is On The Ballot Next Week

Rob Manning/OPB

Most of the country’s attention is focused on the election in November. But voters in Oregon’s Clackamas County have ballots to turn in well before then.

Rob Manning reports on a light rail initiative that goes in front of voters,  next week.


Ballot Measure 3-401 would require Clackamas County commissioners to get voter approval to spend money on new rail systems.

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Whether that applies to the light rail line currently under construction — from Portland to Milwaukie — is up for debate. But when the measure’s author, Eric Winters, appeared on OPB’s Think Out Loud Tuesday, he explained the measure in light of the controversy around the Milwaukie line.

“If you’re talking about something new that’s being constructed that does not have the support of the people you are constructing it for countywide — and it brings along all the different strings that light rail brings — then absolutely, that’s something that gets triggered here.”

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Eleanore Hunter is with the group Positively Clackamas. She opposes the initiative because it interferes with public investment.

“I think it would have catastrophic economic consequences for the county. If you were a business, would you want to come and locate in Clackamas County? This is a deliberate attempt to harm the future of Clackamas County,” Hunter says.

Until the late 1950’s, a trolley car line ran from Portland south through Milwaukie to Gladstone. That’s now a hiking and biking trail. 

Portland to Milwaukie light rail has been on the ballot twice — in 1996 and ’98 — and went down in defeat both times.

Yet work is underway in Clackamas County on the rail line.

Rob Manning/OPB

“This is where the station is in downtown Milwaukie. And then if you travel south over this new bridge, you will then get to Park Avenue, down the road,” says Mary Fetsch TriMet spokesperson  as she looks at construction of a bridge over Kellogg Creek in Clackamas County.

Fetsch says there are at least ten active work sites along the light rail line — including a handful in this county.

She says the county’s light rail ballot initiative doesn’t change the county’s obligation to contribute $22 million.

“We believe that the County is a good partner, and we have a legally binding agreement, and they’re going to come through with it. So how they’re going to figure out their financing is the issue they need to work on and resolve.”

Commissioner Jamie Damon agrees Clackamas County has to contribute to the$1.5 billion project, which is largely funded by other governments. “People think there’s a ‘zero-cost option’ — just not pay the money — and there isn’t. We’re on the hook, we’re obligated.”

But last week, the county decided to cancel a bond sale to fund light rail.

County administrator Steve Wheeler says, “The collective wisdom was that this would not be a good time to go out in the public marketplace for that. That’s not to say we couldn’t do it in the future, necessarily.”

Shortly after that delay, the Oregon Supreme Court temporarily blocked the sale and asked for written arguments on the legality of the proposed bond sale, by the end of the day Tuesday.

The vote on the ballot measure September 18th  may be just the beginning for voters.   The November election could swing control of the county commission from a majority in favor of light rail, to a majority opposed.

Light rail supporter, Jamie Damon, is running against Tootie Smith. Here’s Smith testifying in opposition to selling bonds for the project.

“I ask you – how are we going to make the payments on this bond? It’s no longer whether ‘Who wants it, who doesn’t want it’ – I think it puts the Clackamas County budget in a precarious position.”

Charlotte Lehan, is running to keep her seat as county chair. She told a Labor Day rally that light rail was an example of how Clackamas is the “county that builds things.”

“One of the things that we are building — despite the best efforts of my opponent to stop it — we are building the first bridge across the Willamette in the last 40 years. It is going up as we speak, and we are building light rail to Milwaukie.”

Lehan’s opponent, John Ludlow, opposes expanding light rail to Milwaukie. He was dismissive of county claims that they’d negotiated a cheaper deal from TriMet.

“So you really, you’re getting ten percent off. What a deal for you. The voters with 12,000 signatures, have said they’d like to have an opportunity to have 100 percent off.”

November may well not be the last stop on the light rail controversy, either.

The bond sale decision that was challenged to the Oregon Supreme Court is also the target of a referendum effort.

TriMet Transportation Light Rail

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